Friday, July 9, 2004

Developing countries need help in fighting the tidal wave of junk e-mail known as spam, but also must pass tough laws to address the problem, government and technology experts said this week.

At a conference in Geneva sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations’ telecommunications arm, more than 60 countries agreed to ramp up efforts to pass national laws to curb spam and help one another catch spammers.

But more must be done in places like Africa and the Middle East to deal with spam, where the knowledge and resources to deal with it are limited, experts said.

“The cost of spam falls particularly heavily” on less-developed nations, said John Levine, chairman of an antispam research group organized by the Internet Engineering Task Force. “To the extent that we can have technical solutions that keep them from having to deal with spam at all … that will be of great assistance to them.”

ITU members, in response to questions from Kenyan and Syrian officials, suggested that developing nations turn to spam filters and other technologies created using free, “open source” programming. But they also recommended that the governments of developing nations pass strict antispam laws similar to those in industrialized nations.

Currently, no country in the Middle East or Africa has an antispam law, making it nearly impossible for them to partner with industrialized nations to go after spammers using legal means.

International cooperation has become essential, officials said, because spammers routinely send their messages from one nation to another. Even messages that are sent and received in the same country are routed through other nations including China, Brazil and Russia.

“At this point in time it would seem to be the necessity to establish national laws,” said Robert Horton, chairman of the conference and acting chairman of the Australian Communications Authority. “With such a foundation in place … it would not be then impossible to approach a global [agreement].”

The United States, Britain and Australia, which all have antispam laws, last week reached an agreement to share resources and information when investigating spam cases. Mr. Horton said that if progress were made in creating similar laws in other countries, spam could be under control within two years, particularly if technology advances quickly.

Some First Amendment advocates have cautioned nations about allowing the United Nations to get involved in creating rules for how the Internet will work. By establishing international regulations, they said, rules concerning the Internet could become restrictive because so many nations without guarantees similar to the First Amendment would have input.

But on the spam issue, most experts said U.N. regulation would be unlikely. Rather, nations would be free to establish their own laws and the United Nation’s only role would be to promote the creation of antispam laws in countries that don’t have them and ease the sharing of resources and information. Historically, recommendations handed down by the ITU are not binding, but have been followed because they represent a consensus.

“Given the fact that spam observes no national boundaries … it is essential that those who seek to enforce antispam laws cooperate with those in other nations to make antispam laws have a serious impact,” the conference’s report said.

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